Wednesday, November 29, 2006

We caved


Yes, that's right. We bought a fake Christmas tree. From Lowe's, the Christmas wonderland of wonderlands.

I feel like an adulterer, a whore, a compromiser, a heretic!

I remember not too many years ago, I swore I'd never do this. And now look at me. What would my Dad say? What would Jimmy Stewart say?

The saddest thing of all is, the box says this is a "Just Cut Ashville Fraiser Fir." (They misspelled Asheville and Fraser.) That's funny, because the other side of the box says it's from China. And we bought it anyway.

I'm sorry, spirit of Christmas past!!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Turkey day pictures

For Thanksgiving, we had 3 of our 4 kids with us, as well as our son-in-law Tim. (We missed our daughter-in-law Lindsay and daughter Rebecca and her family.) I smoked a turkey and fried another one for the family. The fried turkey won the popular vote, but the smoked turkey was a close second.

I bought this electric smoker at a yard sale a few years ago. Once you get used to the process, it's a cinch to smoke meats. It took 3 hours to smoke a 14.3 lb. turkey. I had injected a store-bought Cajun marinade into several parts of the turkey to make it moist. I coated the turkey with melted butter and Cajun seasoning. I soaked hickory chunks in water for a couple hours to provide the smoke. In the water pan I poured a mixture of cranberry-apple cider, water, and leftover marinade for flavor. When the turkey reached about 165 degrees, it was done.

Frying a turkey takes less cooking time but more preparation time and expense. I put the turkey in a brine mixture overnight to give it flavor (salt, brown sugar, bay leaves, cloves, & pepper). I heated 4 gallons of peanut oil to 250 degrees, then dropped the turkey in for about 30 minutes until the oil was 350 degrees and the turkey temperature was about 160. Once again, it looked just about perfect! (Thanks for your help, Tim!)

Both turkeys turned out really moist. They both needed a little more cooking time, however. Some of the dark meat was not done and had to be baked some more.

It was a great day to thank God for all His blessings and to enjoy the wonderful family He's given us.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Stranger than Fiction: "I think I'm in a tragedy"

A couple nights ago I went with my wife, daughter, and son-in-law to see the movie Stranger than Fiction, starring Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson. I liked it a lot. The acting is very strong, the story is fascinating, and the movie's connections with Christianity and life questions are quite interesting to talk about. You should see it.

Farrell surprised me with how well he played a role both tragic and romantic (although his performance is also really funny at times). Emma Thompson as the protagonist was great, as always. Maggie Gyllenhaal is wonderful as the love interest. Dustin Hoffman is perfect for his role as a professor and advisor to Ferrell's character.

Ferrell plays an IRS agent named Harold Crick whose every day is a predictable, planned-out routine. He lives alone. He counts everything, from the number of times he moves his toothbrush up and down to the number of steps that get him across the street. He's always right on time and does his job with precision. But what's missing is passion, love, a sense of purpose, and joy. By the end of the movie, he's discovered all of those things.

Harold finds out there are certain things beyond his control, particularly his own death. His life is being "written" by an unseen, unthwartable force. In a real sense, the movie helps you see how God is the sovereign Writer of the story of our lives, and every single one of us will eventually confront the inescapable reality of death. At one point Harold says, "I think I'm in a tragedy." The truth is, we are all in a tragedy. We're fallen, and life is broken. Because of sin, we die.

That's why we need Jesus. Without Him, we're all trapped in a joyless search for meaning. In a poignant moment, the movie illustrates how Jesus Christ intervened on the cross to save us from death, and calls those He saves to a life spent in service to others.

It's a thought-provoking film with a positive message.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Empathy and Jesus

I'm writing a paper on empathy for my Counseling Skills class. Here's a good definition of empathy:

"Empathy is an intuitive act in which we give complete attention to someone else's experience in a way that allows the other to realize that we both share and understand the essential quality of that experience. To be empathetic is to provide a safe haven for the particular experience of the other person. To be empathetic is to release the other person from feeling entirely alone and strange."
(J. E. Bellous, in "Considering Empathy," McMaster Journal of Theology & Ministry, Vol. 3)

I find that in troubled marriages, empathy is usually lacking from one or both spouses. They don't listen to each other. Before one person has spoken, the other has already prepared an answer. They don't "give complete attention" to the other person's experience; instead, they defend themselves and focus on the other's faults. They do not provide "a safe haven" for each other. The result is that each spouse feels "entirely alone and strange."

We would be more empathetic with each other if we'd remember how empathetic Jesus is with us.

The incarnation was an act of divine empathy. God came to earth both to share and to understand our experience of sin and misery. In fact the whole of redemptive history is a record of God's repeated attempts to empathize with us.

The climax of God's empathy was the cross, when Christ did not merely understand our sin but became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). Now He is the High Priest who is able to "sympathize [i.e., empathize] with our weaknesses" (Hebrews 5:15).

This truth about God ought to stun us. The Greeks of the New Testament era did not think that empathy between humans and the gods was possible. Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses and others who reject the divinity of Christ don't get it either. But Christians understand that God literally became flesh, and now identifies fully with us. As Irenaeus put it, "He became as we are in order that we might become as He is."

Not only is it stunning to think about this, but it's wonderfully comforting. Jesus understands my loneliness, my coldness, my fear, my worry. Because of His bottomless empathy, I never need to feel ashamed to tell Him about my "stuff." He's been there. He was tempted in every single way I am tempted, though He didn't give in. So with God, I've been released from feeling alone and strange. Like Job's three friends did at first (Job 2:11-13), God chooses again and again to sit with us in our pain and not say a word, feeling with us and for us.

So if you know you need to grow more empathetic, think about Jesus.




Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Thankful for...

  • A wife who has called my heart out of me and loved me through all the ups and downs of our 30 years together, and whom I still enjoy being with more than any other person on the planet
  • Children who are secure and happy, love God, are engaged in the church, and are using their gifts to expand the Kingdom of God
  • Grandkids...I never thought I'd have 3 of them at age 52!
  • Friends that let me be a regular person
  • Parents that gave me freedom to explore and structure to keep me safe
  • A church that values grace above performance
  • A Bible that many people died to give me
  • A body that still works pretty well
  • A house that is a happy home
  • Above all, Jesus the Friend of sinners -- of whom I am chief.
These are just some of the things I am grateful for this Thanksgiving.

Thank you so much, God!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Grandkids update


My grandson Tate is now almost 2 months old! I can't wait to see him when he & his family come to see us for Christmas. I saw him the day he was born, but I know he's changed a lot already.

Here's my prayer for you, Tate:

"May you be blessed by the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. May the Lord bless you from Zion all the days of your life . . . and may you live to see your children's children."
(Psalm 115:15, 128:5-6)


Recently my wife visited our grandkids. Below is a picture of her holding all 3 of them at once!

Tyler is now five years old. She called us the other day and reminded us that we told her one time that we'd take her to Disney World when she turned five. So we've got to make good on our promise! Maybe we'll do that the week after Christmas.

Tyler is beautiful inside and out. She has such a cheerful, loving spirit. She is a joy-spreader. My prayer for you, Tyler, is that...

"Your beauty will not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it will be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight."
(1 Peter 3:3-4)

Eben is about 2 1/2. He is life itself, full of an adventurous spirit. He's a lot of fun to be with. I played hide and seek with him when I visited back in September. It's funny playing that game with a 2-year old because kids that age don't understand hiding. As soon as I say "Ready or not, here I come," he runs out of hiding and yells.

Here's a blessing for you Eben, taken from Jacob's blessing of his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh:

"May the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day,
the Angel who has delivered me from all harm -- may He bless this boy.
May he increase greatly upon the earth!"
(Genesis 48:15-16)

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Choices

I heard a good quote from the writings of G. Campbell Morgan this morning. I'm not sure I've got it word for word, but the gist of it was:

"Most of us tend to run from things that cause us pain,
instead of running from things that cause God pain."

That is so true of me!

I'm taking a Counseling Theories class right now. One of the earliest models of therapy was psychoanalysis, founded of course by Sigmund Freud. Freud has been discredited, and justifiably so, for some of his ideas. But he had it right when he said that the id (seat of our primitive desires . . . for the Christian, just another term for our sinful nature) is governed by the pleasure principle. Freud said that the id only wants to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. The superego, said Freud, has to come along and "tame" the id so that the individual can live as a social being and contribute to society.

Freud rejected religion, but the truth is he was right about human nature. Without some moral influence, human beings are self-centered pleasure seekers and pain avoiders. The Apostle Paul put it this way: we are dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1).

Christians know that what changes people is not the superego but the gospel. Jesus Christ sets people free from enslavement to sin and gives them a new nature that loves God and wants to serve others. Still, even after coming to faith in Christ, we struggle with that old nature's lingering effects. That's why, as Campbell said, we tend to run from things that cause us pain, instead of running from those things that cause God pain.

I often pray with King David, "Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me" (Psalm 51:10). I want my love for Jesus to outweigh my love of sinning. I want to avoid things that displease God, not because He's gonna spank me if I'm bad, but because He offers me so much more than my idols offer me. And I don't merely want to run from things that cause God pain. That could be nothing more than legalism. Instead, I want to run from sin into the arms of my Father, and draw from those loving arms strength to live a holy life.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Fried turkey

I'm excited that tomorrow I'm going to fry a turkey for my small group! If you've never fried a turkey before, check out the show Good Eats on the Food Network the next couple of days for a funny but educational tour of the world of turkey frying.

(I'm practicing for Thanksgiving when the kids come to visit!)

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Babel

The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) was the effort of sinful man to find meaning and significance apart from God. The new movie, Babel, starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, is a sad but pretty good modern illustration of the same thing. While I found the interweaving of 4 different stories fascinating, I did not "enjoy" this movie and don't recommend that everyone see it. For one thing, its premise is that Americans are all narcissists and mean; everyone else in the world is victimized by Western values and are not themselves responsible for their choices (so let's pile on the USA, again). Also, the too-lengthy scenes involving the deaf Japanese girl are exploitive, very sad, and raise the question of how far a filmmaker should go in his effort to depict reality.

Despite those drawbacks, Babel reinforces the Biblical teaching that one person's mistakes are not merely his own, they ripple out and affect a host of others. All of us are still experiencing the effects of the sin at the plain of Shinar, where some folks got together and decided to build for themselves a city, "with a tower that reaches to the heavens" (Gen. 11:4). Their motive was to "make a name for [themselves] and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth." Instead of trusting in God for significance and security, they relied on a god of their own making, essentially re-enacting Adam and Eve's sin in the Garden. We're still paying for the Tower of Babel, the evidence of which is hatred, war, racism, oppression of minorities, and terrorism...the very things depicted in this movie. The moral is that when I do something wrong, I subject others, even people I love, to the consequences of my sin.

Another way the movie connects with the Biblical story of Babel is in its depiction of man's endless quest for meaning. Everybody in this movie is searching for something of transcendant value, and they mortgage everything they have to get it. The married couple played by Pitt and Blanchett are looking for a fix for their marriage, at ridiculous cost to the wife's heart. Their nanny back in San Diego is looking for love and approval, even if it means putting the lives of two children at terrible risk. The young Moroccan brothers are looking for the love of their father and a sense of manliness, at the cost of their own and others' lives. The Japanese teenager, likewise, is desperate for the love of any man who will play the role of father in her life and let her know she's acceptable.

Those who tried to build a tower that would reach to the sky mortgaged everything they had -- social unity, peace, relationship with God -- in a quest for that elusive "something more." And in the end they lost everything. It's like the rich man of Luke 12 who decided he needed more and bigger barns for his crops. To him God said, "You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you" (Luke 12:20).

I think in this connection of young adults and teenagers who bet their future that a one-night stand is just that, and end up losing their innocence and never being able to enjoy sex in marriage. I think of young married couples who get under a mountain of debt to buy the American dream, and in the process lose their freedom, fun, and relationship with each other. I think of men in midlife who want someone to love them, and instead of asking for it from their wives and friends turn to pornography or lonely women, and end up losing the people who really care.

The search for significance is not bad; it's inevitable, given our lost condition. The question for every person is: Where will your search take you? If you look for it anywhere but God, you'll be frustrated. God meant it when He said, "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3). Fortunately for us, He also meant it when He said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Little Willies

I've been trying to broaden my musical tastes lately. I came to the realization that I'm still listening to the same music I listened to when I was 20. I like classic rock, the Beatles, James Taylor, etc., but I've got to MOVE ON!!

So in my effort to break out of my rut I've been finding out there is some really good music coming from people younger than 50!

One example is The Little Willies. Their self-titled debut record (which you can listen to on their website) came out in March of this year. They remind me of The Band with a bit more of a country sound. Of course the main attraction of TLW is the sultry Norah Jones on piano and vocals. There's a tongue-in-cheek flavor to the whole CD which makes it fun to listen to, sort of like a Barenaked Ladies record.

The album features covers of songs written by country artists like Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, Jr., Kris Kristofferson, and Jimmy Driftwood. Norah Jones' piano playing, Jim Campilongo's guitar solos, and Jon Dryden's contributions on organ sparkle.

Play this CD and imagine you're driving along the Mississippi Gulf Coast on Highway 90 back in the 1950s, listening to a local AM radio station. You'll love the experience.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Living a double life

Many have already weighed in on Ted Haggard's difficulties (go here for a good post from my senior pastor). One aspect of the story that's worth exploring more deeply is just how a person can live a double life and survive psychologically.

In counseling parlance (a la Carl Rogers), every human being has an "external self" (that's the person we appear to be on the outside) and an "internal self" (the person we really are). When the two are pretty much in agreement with each other, you have an authentic person. The fancy word for that is homeostatic balance. Homeostatic balance is one of the things that makes a person happy, healthy, and holy. Adam and Eve were in homeostatic balance (with each other and within themselves) before the Fall. Sin ruined that.

A person who lives a double life experiences incongruence or imbalance between his or her two "selves." And that incongruence produces anxiety. It takes an enormous amount of emotional energy to carry that anxiety and still keep up a good front. Apparently a lot of people -- like Ted Haggard, Mark Foley, and countless numbers of lesser-knowns -- are able to do this. How?

The Bible's explanation is the deceitfulness of sin. One of sin's properties is the power to delude the sinner into thinking that his sin is not all that bad. Sin creates self-deception, which energizes us for a while and creates the illusion of safety. You know what I'm talking about, because all of us have rationalized our bad attitudes, excused our mistakes, and justified our immoral choices by blaming others for them. All of us experience incongruence from time to time.

What makes an authentic person different from a hypocrite is that the former can't stand living with incongruence. He or she takes steps to return to homeostatic balance, while the hypocrite finds ways to live with the anxiety of incongruence.

The Bible and our own experience agree that living a double life does not pay. Again and again we've seen the Ted Haggards of the world get found out and suffer the humiliation of public disgrace. But ironically, we don't learn the lesson. You may say that you'll never be "that bad." The truth is, every one of us has the capacity to deceive ourselves into horrible crimes against God, against the people we love, and against ourselves.

So what can we do to keep our two "selves" in balance and thus stay happy, healthy, and holy?

One way is to be in community with a small group of others who will keep us honest. The Bible says in Hebrews 12:12-13,

"See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness."

A small group of trusted friends who know us well can tell when our external self does not line up with our internal self. They can ask us the hard questions, and challenge us when they see us taking short-cuts. That's what the writer of Hebrews was talking about when he said, "Encourage one another daily."

Of course, I'm sure Ted Haggard was in a small group too. And he was apparently able to hide from them for a long time. So it's not fool-proof. But if we'll work hard to let our friends know what's really going on inside, no matter how dark and ugly it may be, we'll be less likely to succeed at living a double life.

And we'll be happier, healthier, and holier.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Try this Bible podcast

My friend Jan turned me on to a daily reading of the Bible on iTunes that I'm enjoying. It takes you through the Bible in a year, assuming you listen to 2 podcasts a day (1 in the Old Testament, the other in the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs). The guy doing the reading has a good voice for the job, and he gives a brief introduction to each reading that's accurate and helpful.

I like that it's in the New Living Translation (NLT). It's easy to follow and faithful to the original.

I'm enjoying listening to it in the car.

Here is the URL.
Those Geico caveman commercials...

they are the best!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Queen

My wife and I went to see The Queen last night. It's a new movie just playing in one theatre in the whole city of Orlando. I guess it's an advance screening or whatever they call it.

Anyhow, it's good! It has a 98% rating so far on RottenTomatoes.com, which is unheard of. It's about Queen Elizabeth II and the Royal Family, and almost all the action centers around the week in 1997 when ex-Princess Di was killed in that car accident in Paris. Performances by Helen Mirren as Elizabeth and Michael Sheen as Tony Blair are incredible. An action film it's not. But it's a compelling story about a powerful woman learning humility, and in the process finding out the power of love.

Redemption shows up in a big way. The pain Elizabeth has carried all her life reaches a climax when she is all alone on her Balmoral estate, and with tears flowing she seems to realize the life she has yearned for has all but escaped her grasp. A beautiful buck suddenly appears by the river, symbolizing the freedom and beauty her heart longs for. Later, Elizabeth learns that the buck was killed by a hunter, and she sees the animal hanging from an iron chain, decapitated and bleeding. It's a stretch I know, but it made me think that the life we've dreamed of and missed has been purchased for us through the death of Christ.

There's also redemption in the attitude of Tony Blair toward Elizabeth. When others rant and rave against her for her stuffiness, Blair sees her pain and the dignity of her office, and believes she has a good heart.

The film reminded me that we're all like Elizabeth II, in a way. While we'll never know the life of royalty, we've all been hurt by life circumstances we did not choose; we've all made terrible mistakes; and we've all suffered rejection and humiliation. What can save us from despair is knowing that Someone very strong loves us a lot, defends us, and will not let us go.

"The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing" (Zephaniah 3:17).